By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
When you think of coal mining, the state of Illinois is probably not the first state to come to mind. But one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history actually occurred at the Cherry Mine in northern Illinois on November 13, 1909.
At 7:00 A.M. that fateful morning, there were 481 men and boys in the mine. For most of these European immigrants, it was their first job in the new world. The town of Cherry had a population of 2,000 and, in one way or another, everyone’s life was connected to the St. Paul Coal Company, the only industry in town.
The mine was 500 feet beneath the town and included a stable for the mules used in hauling the coal. When hay was sent down for the mules that day, it was left beneath one of the torches strung throughout the mine. The hay ignited and soon the timbers and the coal vein itself were on fire. The burning coal produced a thick black smoke called black damp.
The only method of communication between the miners was man to man, so it took too long for the message to spread that the mine should be abandoned. Some men made it out of the mine, but almost 300 men were trapped.
Some miners were rescued that first day before the elevator also caught fire killing all of the rescuers in the cage. After this, there was no hope of rescue as the fire burned. The mine officials had lumber and sand thrown over the blocked exits to try to extinguish the fire, and fire crews from Chicago were called. They poured tons of water into the shaft.
Eight long days later a rescue party descended into the mine. They found only 25 miners alive. These men were given emergency medical treatment and then a ride home to their families. One old miner wanted to walk home and was found dead in his bed two days later. He is considered the 259th death from the accident.
Serious exhumations of the victims in the mine began in the spring of 1910. Long rows of bodies were laid under white tents as they were identified. Then, horse-drawn hearses carried the caskets to the Cherry graveyard just south of town.
Joann and I first visited the Cherry Miner’s Cemetery in April of 2013. It was sobering to see the rows of gravestones all with the same date of death. We were amazed that the town had survived after the tragedy.
Before our trip in the spring of this year, I came upon more history of the mine and found that the gob piles (the waste of the mining process) were still there just north of town along with a building or two that had been incorporated into a farm.
In downtown Cherry, there is a memorial to the miners who lost their lives in the disaster. It includes an etching of the mine as it looked at the time, and the names of the miners lost.
In 1910, the Illinois legislature established stronger fire and safety regulations for mines, and a year later the state adopted a liability act which later became the Illinois Worker’s Compensation Act.
You never know what history lies just down the road in your travels. Some good, some bad, but all of it shaped our country.